Jackson Pollock’s “Mural,” made in 1943, is the biggest thing he ever did. Peggy Guggenheim ordered it and hung its voluminous 8-by-20-foot expanse in the foyer of her Manhattan residence. It could barely contain it, and neither could Pollock himself. For the artist, yet to be ultrafamous for the bravura drips and splatters that would define his career — over-define, really, but that’s another story — “Mural” was a point of departure into mass scale and pure, robust abstraction. It’s the moment Pollock became Pollock, surely one of the most important works in Modern art, whether in America or anywhere else.
So why, then, does it feel so small? Maybe it has something to do with the rift between myth and reality, like meeting your favorite actor in real life to learn he’s only 5-foot-9 (they all are, aren’t they?). But “Mural,” now hanging at the Museum of Fine Arts, is keeping some overbearing company these days.
Draped perpendicular to “Mural” is German contemporary artist Katharina Grosse’s “Untitled,” a 16-by-48-foot riot of color that dangles ceiling to floor, slicing the gallery in two. “Mural” is tucked neatly in a notch on the wall, behind ropes; “Untitled” free-floats, curling onto the floor where guards have to constantly shoo people away to avoid footprints.
“Mural” ’s space here was built in the same proportions as Guggenheim’s foyer, a contextual nod as well as a protective one. (The piece is on loan from its permanent home at the University of Iowa, which is in the midst of a major construction project, with the MFA just one stop on an extensive world tour. In an epic “whoops,” Guggenheim first offered it to Yale, which turned her down.) “Untitled” was made for this space, this moment, and it feels like it: It’s so radically alive, it sways in the backdraft of each passerby. It looks like it was finished 10 minutes ago. It might still be wet.
MFA curator Akili Tommasino, who commissioned Grosse’s work to hang alongside Pollock’s, had envisioned her piece as a response — two painters communing across time, a reflective conversation about the moment Modernism broke open, and broke down, from representational painting into the mind-muddying glory of abstraction. There was more, inevitably, to it — a contemporary female painter taking on an old-guard patriarchal art-world order, established and owned by a cadre of artists whose brand was robust machismo — Pollock and his Abstract Expressionist crew — who re-made art with muscular abandon.
Grosse, for her part, wasn’t having it, Tommasino told me. It’s probably a wise move on her part. In a moment fraught with the perils of identity politics and a reinvigorated culture war, the entire thing risked slipping down a King vs. Riggs “Battle of the Sexes” slope. Grosse, apparently, carefully elided that conversation and stuck to her favorite script — how her work inhabits space and shifts perceptions of architecture, how an ephemeral installation can re-order one’s idea of bricks-and-mortar permanence.
“Untitled” surely does that. But, still. In the space “Mural” and “Untitled” share, there are two paintings: One massive and overwhelming that appears to breathe like a living thing, and another kind of big, static, and tucked off to one side. “Untitled” can’t be avoided; to be in the space at all is to negotiate your path relative to its footprint. “Mural,” by contrast, feels polite and deferential, available at your convenience. “Untitled” is both impenetrable and translucent; Grosse’s spray-painted surface can be viewed from either side. “Mural,” simply, is what it is — a stretched canvas inside a frame, hung on the wall. It has its limits. “Untitled” attempts to reach for the limitless.
But here’s something else. “Untitled,” at least for me, offers no choice. That room is its world. It’s engaging enough, but is it a little one note? It’s like a movie you’ve seen twice: You can only enter that room once.
“Mural,” meanwhile, reveals itself in layers. “Untitled” booms, while “Mural” quietly seethes, off to the side. You can see history itself in its hide. Amid its tangles of color and form are spatters, foreshadowing what’s to come. You can see Pollock’s hand, repeating, swinging wildly, sharp swipes of black flung head-to-toe. It can make your shoulder hurt in sympathetic pain. It feels sharply human, a roadmap of sweat and labor, ambition meted out pound by pound.
Whatever Grosse’s intentions, there’s a conversation happening here. Each generation comes to bury the one before, after gleaning what it can. Pollock, like Grosse, would have grappled with the history that lead him to paint — the history of representation, of Modernism, and of the European Surrealism in which he indulged that brought him, eventually, to abstraction. To paint at all is to square yourself with what came before — to drink it in and push back, to make something new. It leaves Pollock looking his age, which I doubt he’d mind. “Untitled” isn’t a response to “Mural,” but it couldn’t exist without it.
MURAL: JACKSON POLLOCK | KATHARINA GROSSE
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through Feb. 23, 2020. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org